Burstiness in language and the liberation of Paris

In which language displays interesting statistical properties, some people get fired, and I learn a few words about the Army.

Twenty-plus years ago, I got my first job as an actual, card-carrying linguist, working for a company that did things with big collections of linguistic data, using them to improve computer programs that did speech recognition, i.e. figuring out what words a person is saying.

One fine day the people that gave us the vast majority of our income sent their big-collection-of-linguistic-data specialist to visit us. We demonstrated to him the computer program that we had built to answer the question how can you tell when a big collection of linguistic data is big enough? We pointed out how to spot the tell-tale sign on a graph that means “it’s big enough.” “Oh, that just means that linguistic data is bursty.”

The blue line shows a big collection of linguistic data that is not nearly big enough. The other lines show big collections of linguistic data that are big enough. The telltale sign: a line that has gotten flat. Picture source: Irina Temnikova, Negacy Hailu, Galia Angelova, and K. Bretonnel Cohen. “Measuring closure properties of patent sublanguages.” In Proceedings of the International Conference Recent Advances in Natural Language Processing RANLP 2013, pp. 659-666. 2013.

What did he mean by “bursty?” We had a guess, but weren’t exactly sure, and given that his company paid us a lot of money and he was their expert, my boss thought it best not to push back. A few months later, they declined to renew our contract, and our owner laid everyone off and went away to do something else. Was it because we didn’t push back on the big-collection-of-linguistic-data expert’s dismissiveness? Probably not–our little company committed far bigger errors, and on a sadly regular basis. Whatever–the job market for computational linguists was not terrible in those days (it’s pretty wonderful now), and I found my second job as an actual, card-carrying linguist pretty quickly. But: burstiness is pretty important, and it continues to bump into my life today, in various and sundry ways, some of which will be of interest to readers of this blog.

What burstiness means: per Wikipedia,

In statisticsburstiness is the intermittent increases and decreases in activity or frequency of an event.

Wikipedia, Burstiness

In plain English: burstiness is present when something doesn’t happen for long periods of time, but then happens a lot, and then goes back to not happening very often. Some things that have this characteristic: hurricanes, and pandemics. Statisticians care about burstiness because bursty things are difficult to characterize with normal statistics, so you have to come up with new techniques to work with them; people like disaster planners and public health experts care about those statistics because it is difficult to predict, and therefore to plan for, things that have weird statistical properties.


From a computational linguist’s perspective, burstiness is important because in big collections of language, you don’t see new words very often, but when you do, sometimes you see a lot of them at once. If you’re trying to do something like build a dictionary for a computer program, you typically do that by finding all of the words in a big collection of linguistic data. But, how do you know when your collection of linguistic data is big enough? See above; the problem is that if you kept growing the collection, you know that there will be bursts of new words, but you can’t keep growing your collection forever–at some point, you have to stop and work with what you have at hand.


Many of our dear fellow readers are engaged in learning a language that they don’t already speak. I am one of them–if you have been reading this blog for a few years, you have followed my feeble attempts to learn la langue de Molière, also known as “French.” By now I know the language well enough that I can pick up a book in it and not have to turn to a dictionary very often. But, when I do, it typically happens like this…


Right at this moment, I’m reading Paris brûle-t-il ?, “Is Paris burning?,” the work of reference on the liberation of Paris. I typically get through about three pages before I have to look up a word. But, then this morning, I’m reading about the French 2nd Armored Division rolling from Normandy to Paris when I come across this sentence. I had to look up all of the words in bold face:

Glissant en silence sur leurs six roues de caoutchouc, les automitrailleuses des spahis à calots rouges, “chiens de chasse” de la division, ouvraient la marche.

Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, Paris brûle-t-il ?, published by Robert Laffont in 1964.
  • l’automitrailleuse: a light armored vehicle.
  • le spahi: native cavalry trooper of the Maghreb.
  • le calot: garrison cap in English; when I was in the Navy, we called them “cunt caps.” A calot has no brim or visor, and therefore can be folded flat and tucked under the epaulet of a military jacket.
A Russian garrison cap, or calot in French, pilotka in Russian.

After that, it was back to my normal rate: about one word every three pages. That certainly counts as “not very often,” and is pretty good for a non-native speaker. To then jump to three words in a single sentence, and then go back to my base rate of one word every three pages, is a good example of burstiness. Once again, we see why one might right a blog like this one–a blog about the statistical properties of language and their implications for people who are trying to learn one. What happened to the dismissive big-collections-of-linguistic-data expert? I don’t know for a fact, but I do know that people who are dismissive of the opinions of others don’t typically have much professional success. Personally, I took what I learned from the experience of working at a failed software start-up to do a better job of being a computational linguist, and have had a wonderfully fun time with it. Want to try a career in computational linguistics yourself? Start here if you are not a graduate student, or here if you are, and I hope you have as much fun with it as I have!

French notes:

Despite what its name would lead one to think, an automitrailleuse does not necessarily carry a machine gun. Here some pictures of modern automitrailleuses. You’ll notice that some of them look a lot like tanks. The salient differences are that (1) they weigh less, and (2) they have wheels, not treads.

How we’re sounding stupid today: On the propriety of examples

My first language is (American) English, but I speak French well enough that if I want French people to believe that I’m an American, I have to convince them of it. Comparing and contrasting French and American political appartenances helps, as does my ability to explain the difference between felonies and misdemeanors and how they affect the length of your prison sentence. Why it doesn’t occur to me to just speak English with them, I couldn’t tell you–I’ll have to try it some time…

My ability to speak French well doesn’t mean that I don’t make absolutely stupid mistakes, though. Case in point: propreté and propriété. One means “cleanliness” and one means “property,” but if I need to say either “cleanliness” or “property” in French, which of those two words propreté and propriété will come out of my mouth is pretty random. How random? I’d guess a 50/50 chance for either of them. So, how often do I say the right/wrong word? Let’s figure it out.

First, we have to make some assumptions. Assumption #1: the probability of me needing to say cleanliness and the probability of me needing to say property are equal. If we don’t make that assumption, then we have to adjust the calculation of how often I say the wrong word to account for how often each of those two words get said. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1.

Assumption #2: the probability of me saying the right word and the wrong word are equal. Otherwise, we have to adjust our calculations of how often I say the wrong word to account for different probabilities for each. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1, and Assumption #2.


With those assumptions in place, let’s figure out the possible outcomes in a situation where I need to say one of those words: “cleanliness:”

  1. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propreté (the right word)
  2. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propriété (the wrong word)

We have two possible outcomes (that’s the technical term), so the probability of either of them is 1/2, or 0.50, or 50%.

It works the same way if I need to say “property”–there are two outcomes:

  1. I need to say “property” and I say propreté (the wrong word)
  2. I need to say “property” and I say propriété (the right word)

Back to our original question: how often do I say the right/wrong word? Well… we need to change the question. To wit: to know how often I say the right/wrong word, we would need to know the probability of me saying every word that I say, and calculate the probabilities of me getting them right/wrong.

However: I don’t give a fuck about that. What seems funny to me about the fact that I am equally as likely to fuck up the words cleanliness and property is that they’re so fucking…common. I mean, I don’t have a problem with the vocabulary for talking about, say, why we have the Electoral College or why Beaux Arts Victorian houses aren’t built any more, but I can’t talk about the fact that if my little corner of New Orleans gets flooded in the next couple days, I am going to have some hot, sweaty, bug-infested work ahead of me as soon as I can get a plane ticket back there. Yes, friends and family: I am safe and sound in Colorado.


Note to self: propreté is pretty close to propre, “clean”–maybe that can help me remember? And for practice (just in case writing this blog post wasn’t enough), here are some sentences to practice with, courtesy of the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them. Scroll down for the answers:

  1. Je suis en train de vendre ma ______.
  2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la ______ de la piscine.
  3. Comment conserver la ______ d’une salle de bain ?
  4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les ______ de trous noirs.
  5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la ______ .
  6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de ______ dans la maison !
  7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta ______ ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
  8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la ______ exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
  9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la ______ des oreilles de votre chien.
  10. Actuellement la ______ appartient à la commune.
  11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la ______ de leurs auteurs respectifs.
  12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de ______ du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
  13. Les sanitaires sont d’une ______ immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
  14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines ______ d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
  15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de ______ du trottoir qui borde sa ______.
  16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de ______ de la ______.
  17. Un matériau aux multiples ______ – résistance, ultra______ – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
  18. Il n’a cependant pas les ______ ou la ______ du biométhane naturel.

Picture source: https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/how-a-hurricanes-dirty-side-factors-into-the-storm-surge-it-produces/801756. Scroll down for the answers to the exercise!

  1. Je suis en train de vendre ma propriété.
  2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la propreté de la piscine.
  3. Comment conserver la propreté d’une salle de bain ?
  4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les propriétés de trous noirs.
  5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la propreté .
  6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de propreté dans la maison !
  7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta propriété ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
  8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la propriété exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
  9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la propreté des oreilles de votre chien.
  10. Actuellement la propriété appartient à la commune.
  11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la propriété de leurs auteurs respectifs.
  12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de propreté du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
  13. Les sanitaires sont d’une propreté immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
  14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines propriétés d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
  15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de propreté du trottoir qui borde sa propriété.
  16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de propreté de la propriété.
  17. Un matériau aux multiples propriétés – résistance, ultrapropreté – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
  18. Il n’a cependant pas les propriétés ou la propreté du biométhane naturel.

English notes: In my defense, a big part of my problem, I would guess, comes from the fact that English has the word propriety. The Merriam-Webster web site gives these synonyms for it: decencydecorumform. Examples:

  1. Zipf, I’m not sure about the propriety of that example about the cleanliness of Mr. Walder’s tongue.
  2. President Obama was the very *model* of propriety. Never once did he say or do anything to make America ashamed of him. (Source: Twitter)
  3. Even inside the nation’s prominent law firms preparing to help President Trump wage a legal war challenging the results of the election, concerns are intensifying about the propriety and wisdom of working for Trump, the New York Times reports. (Source: a tweet from the San Francisco Chronicle)

Computational linguistics and misinformation

Computational linguistics takes on the infected swamp that the World-Wide Web has become

In the late 1990s, I worked at a start-up. At the time, it was one of the 25 largest web sites in the world.

Why “largest web site,” and not “biggest web site?” English tends to use “big” to refer to physical objects, and “large” to refer to abstract concepts. Note that I said “tends to”–this is a statistical tendency, not an absolute.

Like a lot of people working for internet-related businesses or causes, we thought that we were making the world a better place. The World-Wide Web was going to democratize so much–access to information, democratization of everyone’s ability to communicate their message to a broader world.

20+ years later, we all realize that everyone includes a lot of assholes. From a former president of the United States to random evil-doers in the former Soviet Union, there are people who use the technologies that so many of us well-intentioned people worked so hard on to spread hate, to attack democracy, to spread lies.


Misinformation: things that are not true. Disinformation: deliberately created untrue things. Unlike a simple mistake, misinformation is widely spread about. Unlike a lie, disinformation is widely spread about, too. “Diffused,” if you prefer a technical term. “Propagated.”


People like me who had a hand in developing the kinds of technologies that assholes use to propagate misinformation and disinformation have–belatedly, I would say–begun to try to address the kinds of problems that we helped create. One of these is a shared task on detecting online misinformation. A “shared task” involves a bunch of computer-sciencey-types getting together to define a task–say, finding emails that would be relevant to a court case. They come to an agreement about the definition of the task, about the right contents for a shared data set on which to evaluation performance on that task, and a metric for evaluating performance on it. You put together a schedule, everybody goes off and builds a computer system for doing the task, you distribute the data, and on some agreed-upon date, everybody submits their systems’ output to the people who organized the task. Then everyone gets together for a workshop in which we compare systems, compare outputs, and see what we can learn from those comparisons.


A day or two ago, an email appeared in my inbox about just such a shared task. Its goal is to deal with misinformation on the Internet. That’s a pretty goddamn big thing to take on, though, isn’t it? So, the participants agreed on a subpart of the misinformation problem that is a bit more tractable:

The TREC Health Misinformation track fosters research on retrieval methods that promote reliable and correct information over misinformation for health-related decision making tasks.

https://trec-health-misinfo.github.io/

Right away, we know some of the ways that the organizers have defined their hopefully-tractable task definition:

  1. The word retrieval suggests that participants will be given a set of documents, and that their output should be documents from that set. This mimics the basic structure of the World-Wide Web: a set of documents (on a loose definition of the term “document”) that users search in order to find information.
  2. The word health-related suggests that participants will not need to be able to deal with every possible kind of misinformation–only health-related misinformation. This makes the task considerably more (potentially) achievable, and given the amount of misinformation that has recently been spread on health-related issues such as the current global COVID19 pandemic, there is potential benefit to the world as a whole if it can be accomplished. (Notice how I snuck in there the inference that health-related is a word, not a something…more than a word? I don’t actually think that–just showing you how discourse works.)
  3. Promote reliable and correct information over misinformation refers to a common aspect of any “retrieval” task (see #1 above): your system is expected to present not just a set of documents, but a ranked list of those documents. Think about it like the page of results that Google gives you when you do a search: you want the most relevant web page to be at the top of the page, not at the bottom, right? So, that’s what the shared task organizers are asking your system to do: rank correct information over misinformation. Of course, if all of the web pages that your system presents to the user are correct, then that is wonderful. (Normally only the top results are considered in terms of scoring your system’s performance.)

Want more details? See the TREC Health Misinformation Track web page. Note that all opinions expressed in this post are mine, and they especially do not represent those of TREC, the Text Retrieval Conference, an organization that has run shared tasks for…over twenty years now, wow… And if you feel like slapping a computational person of my advanced age for having helped to create the stinking swamp that the World-Wide Web has become: go for it. But, also recognize that computational linguists are trying to do something to…wait for it…drain that swamp.

The picture at the top of this post is from an article published by the New York Times on April 13th, 2020.

How to learn conjugation: the Kaqchikel edition II

…and after all of that, now we can conjugate both consonant-initial AND vowel-initial intransitive verbs IN THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR PRESENT TENSE ONLY. Persistence, persistence!

Want to learn how to conjugate verbs in French? No problem–you can look them up lots of places on line, you can buy a book on the topic at pretty much any train station in France, and the French Verb Forms app will give you many happy hours of practice. (Seriously, I use it often.)

Want to learn to conjugate verbs in a less-commonly-studied language? Good fucking luck. You have two basic options:

  1. Get a “FLAS.” Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships fund students to do intensive courses in languages that the US has a national interest in having Americans know how to speak. (Seriously, it’s not a coincidence that they used to be called National Defense Foreign Language fellowships.) You either have the wonderful luck to be at a university that offers courses in your (relatively) obscure language of choice, or you snag a $2,500 summer grant to go take an intensive course somewhere. (Indiana University Bloomington is currently offering FLAS language courses in Akan, Bosnian, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian… You get the picture.)
  2. Figure it all out for yourself.

Option #2, “figure it all out for yourself,” is the one that you pick if you are a bald old fat fuck such as myself who is not going to be getting a FLAS summer fellowship any time soon. Option #2 begins with figuring out what the characteristics of verbs are in your language of choice, such that those characteristics might affect how you go about learning to conjugate them. We worked our way through this in a previous post. I’ll sum up the outcome like this:

The main things that differentiate amongst verbs in Kaqchikel are

  1. Whether they are transitive, or intransitive
  2. Whether they began with a consonant, or with a vowel

Last time we worked on consonant-initial intransitive verbs. This time, we’ll move on to vowel-initial intransitive verbs. First thing we need: a list of such verbs. To put one together, we’ll go through the glossary at the end of the only English-based Kaqchikel textbook that I know of: ¿La Ütz Awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith M. Maxwell, Walter E. Little, and Angelika Bauer.

I am simplifying the Kaqchikel transitivity situation quite a bit. This will not shock Americanists (linguists who work on the indigenous languages of the Americas).

-achik’to dream
-ach’ixïnto sneeze
-ajanto brush, to sculpt
-ajilanto count
-ajinto be Ving (a progressive)
-ak’walanto procreate
-aläx peto be born, to sprout
-animäjto run from, to flee
-animajinto escape, to flee
-aninto run
-aponto arrive there
-aq’ab’anto rise before dawn

All of these verbs begin with -a because I started at the beginning of the glossary, and it happens to be in alphabetical order. But, the observant reader will also have noted that many of these verbs end with n. Is this significant? Probably, but I don’t yet know why.

Want to know how to pronounce these verbs? See this post on my adventures in learning the pronunciation of Kaqchikel consonants.


OK, we’ve got some vowel-initial verbs, and we did consonant-initial ones last time, so let’s compare them. We’ll start with the first person singular of the present tense. Last time we learned the prefix yi- for consonant-initial vowels; for vowel-initial ones, we instead use yin-. Let’s look at examples of them side by side, and then we’ll practice the vowel-initial variant using the same technique that we learned last time. Remember that you will look at the example, then cover the second column of the table and work your way down it row by row, doing whatever the example showed you to do.

-sik’in (to read)yisik’in-aq’ab’an (rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an
-tzijon (to talk)yitzijon-achik’ (to dream)yinachik’
-tz’ib’an (to write)yitz’ib’an-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-samäj (to work)yisamäj-ajilan (to count)yinajilan
-wa’ (to eat)yiwa’-anin (to run)yinanin
-b’iyin (to walk)yib’iyin-apon (to arrive there)yinapon
Example: -oq’ (to cry)yinoq’
-achik’ (to dream)yinachik’
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-ajilan (to count)yinajilan
-anin (to run)yinanin
-apon (to arrive there)yinapon
-aq’ab’an (to rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an

Following the same strategy that we learned last time, we will now alternate between the two of them…

Example: -wäryiwär
b’ixan (to sing)yib’ixan
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-kemon (to weave)yikemon
-atin (to bathe)yinatin
-wa’ (to eat)yiwa’
yinaq’ab’an

…and then mix them randomly:

Example: -oq’ (to cry)yinoq’
-samäj (to work)yisamäj
-tz’ib’an (to write)yitz’ib’an
-atin (to bathe)yinatin
-kemon (to weave)yikemon
-aq’ab’an (to rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn

…and after all of that, now we can conjugate both consonant-initial AND vowel-initial intransitive verbs IN THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR PRESENT TENSE ONLY. Persistence, persistence!

The picture at the top of this page is of a Kaqchikel singer I like a lot named Sara Curruchich. You can buy her stuff on Apple Music, and I’m sure elsewhere, as well. Picture source: https://assembly.malala.org/stories/kaqchikel-artist-guatemala. No English or French notes today, but here is one of her songs–I’ll post the words in Kaqchikel and in Spanish below.

IXOQI/MUJERES

xub’ij ri wati’t’ chuwe’: (Mi abuela me dijo:)

Noya, at achiel, at achi’el ri ruwächulew (Sos como la madre tierra)

at achi’el ri ruwächulew (Sí, como la tierra)

CORO.

Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

At keri’ rat wal (“Así, así sos) nïm riaq’ij wal (Es inmenso e importante tu existir”)

Xcha’ ri watit pa jun wachik’ (Dijo mi abuela en mis sueños)

Man junb’ey xtnumestaj ta (Nunca olvidaré su palabra)

Jantape’ k’o pa nuk’u’x re (Se han aferrado a mi corazón)

CORO.

Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

Cada paso que doy

Me acerca a mis hermanas

A la igualdad soñada

Merecida y trabajada

Cada paso que doy

Deja una huella sutil

Un camino que puede seguir

Un destino

CORO.

Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

K’aslem (Vida)

A Cada paso que das

How to learn conjugation: the Kaqchikel edition

With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations. But, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself.

Learning verb conjugations in any language requires memorization, practice, and more memorization. With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations; but, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself. The process of practicing those conjugations is the same, though. I will show you a system here that I picked up from the textbook Português Contemporaneo, by Maria Abreu and Cléo Rameh.

Kaqchikel is spoken in Guatemala, in the purple-colored region at the lower left of the map. Map source: online Kaqchikel Dictionary Project.

Being a big believer in writing about what you don’t know, I will illustrate the process with Kaqchikel, a Mayan language spoken by 400,00–500,000 people in the western highlands of Guatemala. There is an excellent textbook on Kaqchikel, called ¿La ütz awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith Maxwell, Walter Little, and Angelika Bauer. Other didactic materials are hard to come by outside of Guatemala, though–and in particular, there is no 501 Kaqchikel Verbs. (Fat old fucks such as myself grew up using books of verb conjugations with the standard title X01 [language name] verbs, where X is typically a 2 or a 5–for example, 501 French Verbs. They were published by a company called Barron’s. Still are, although I wouldn’t swear that they sell very many copies these days.) Hence: this post. Ready? Let’s do this!

Step One: Figure out what categories of verbs exist.

In Kaqchikel, that will be the following (at least to a first approximation):

  • Transitive verbs versus intransitive verbs
  • Verbs that start with consonants versus verbs that start with vowels

This is a very language-specific thing. Autrement dit: you have to do this for every language. In Spanish, the classes would be different:

  • Verbs that end with -ar in the infinitive, versus ones that end with -er and ones that end with -ir
  • Verbs that are regular in the tense that you’re learning, versus verbs that are irregular in that tense

In French, there would be so many categories that if a student working on an undescribed language told me that “their” language worked that way, I would tell them to go away and come back when they could prove it, ’cause languages like French just are not all that plausible. (The only similar one that I can think of is Dinka–1.3 million speakers in Sudan and South Sudan.)

Back to Kaqchikel… We’ll start with the intransitive verbs. (Left to my own devices, I prefer to start with transitive verbs, but the textbook that I’m using starts with the intransitives, and I’m gonna bet that the people who wrote the textbook known a hell of a lot more about how to learn Kaqchikel than I do.) The other thing that matters to us today is whether the verb starts with a consonant or with a vowel, and here I genuinely have no preferences, so we’ll start with the verbs that begin with consonants, just like the textbook does.)

Step Two: Pick a “person.”

I’m gonna start with the first person singular, i.e. “I,” because I know that that’s what my teacher will ask me about first. I am actually a fan of the third-person singular, i.e. “he/she/it,” when (trying to) learn a language where that’s a regular one. (The third person singular is not necessarily regular in any commonly understood sense of that word. It’s not difficult to find languages with over a dozen forms for the third person singular. Swahili (50-100 million speakers in East Africa–Swahili is so widely used as a lingua franca that it is difficult to know who to count as a speaker) is a common one, and has about 15, plus some more for plurals.)


So, the first-person singular of consonant-initial intransitive verbs: the marker is the prefix yi-. To practice it, I will put together a table like the following. The first row gives an example of what I need to do. You read it like this: when prompted with the verb wär, which means ‘sleep,’ add rïn yi- to it to make rïn yiwär, ‘I sleep.’ Then I have six repetitions. For each one, I cover up the answer, then do the thing, then uncover the answer to check whether I got it write. (Ummmm: right. Damn homophones…) Ready? Let’s do this shit!

Example: wär (sleep)rïn yiwär
xajon (dance)rïn yixajon
b’e (go)rïn yib’e
tz’iban (write)rïn yitz’iban
tzijon (to talk)rïn yitzijon
käm (to die)rïn yikäm
k’ask’o’ (to recover from an illness)rïn yik’ask’o’

You see the system? Now I’ll try the second-person singular, i.e. “you.” This time, we’re going to add rat ya-.

Example: wärrat yawär
xajonrat yaxajon
b’erat yab’e
tz’ibanrat yatz’iban
tzijonrat yatzijon
kämrat yakäm
k’ask’o’rat yak’ask’o’
Second person singular present tense, vowel-initial intransitive verbs

Now it’s time to mix the two together:

rïn/wärrïn yiwär
rïn/b’e (go)rïn yi’b’e
rat/b’e (go)rat ya’b’e
rïn/tzijon (talk)rïn yitzijon
rat/tz’ib’an (write)rat yatz’ib’an
rïn/käm (die)rïn yikäm
rat/k’ask’o’ (recover from an illness)rat yak’ask’o’

…and, then we add in the third-person singular, and we’re done for the day–plurals can wait until tomorrow. If you don’t want to slog through those with me, I’ll just point you towards these videos on the conjugation of intransitive verbs in Kaqchikel–if you do want to do some slogging, page down past the video links!

Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1Yzi6IFcec

Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:

The picture at the top of this post shows eight Kaqchikel women from the village of San Marcos La Laguna, in the Lake Atitlán region. They were recipients of a micro-loan that enabled them to go into business selling the fabric that they make at home. Their clothes are the everyday wear of Kaqchikel women in that area. Picture source: here.

How computational linguists think about birds

Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

Zipf,


While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.”
Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.

Jeff

In lieu of my normal English notes, I have added links to the definitions of the various and sundry low-frequency words in this post.

Jeff,

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound.  My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits.  Two questions come to mind for me:


1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds.
2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it.  
Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs.  More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds. 

–Zipf

Some relevant videos from Jeff:

A budgie speaking Japanese

One speaking Russian

A collection of similar videos for miscellaneous languages

Incidentally, in A budgie speaking Japanese… One speaking Russian, the “one” is an instance of what is called “one anaphora.”

I’ll shut up now.

The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.

Stupid questions, the Paris Métro, and some vocabulary

Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a stupid question.

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. (See the English notes below for an explanation of the various and sundry linguistic oddities in that sentence.) I have trained myself to spend very little time on social media, and now that my native land no longer has a president who does not seem to be clear on the facts that Australia is our friend but Russia isn’t, and has complete and sole control over the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, I typically don’t check the newspapers more than twice a day. Quora, though–it can suck me down rabbit holes for hours. It lets people pose questions. Anyone. On anything. Anything. And anyone who feels like answering, can.

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A common saying in English: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. When do people say it? When other people start questions with something like “this is a stupid question, but…” …followed by a question. There’s certainly some truth to that. In fact, asking “stupid” questions was the only way that I survived graduate school. Graduate students tend to be terrified to ask any question that they fear might reveal that they don’t know everything. But, since I am covered with tattoos (not unusual for young folks these days, but very unusual for people of my advanced age), I go through life on the assumption that everybody assumes I’m stupid anyway, so why not ask questions? As one of my professors said to me in a very short note that accompanied my A- grade in Syntax 102, which was much higher than I actually deserved: You asked the questions that other people were afraid to ask.

So, yeah: you, Dear Reader, are smart, and if you have a question, other people around you do, too. They won’t think that you’re stupid if you ask it–they might very well thank you for asking it.

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So, yeah: the “no such thing as a stupid question” claim is not totally without merit. Absolutes are not often correct, and “no such thing” is most definitely an absolute. My personal candidate for questions that truly are stupid would be questions that assume something that is completely wrong, without any apparent awareness of the assumption. Case in point: this question that I ran across on Quora today…

Why are people allowed to pee in the Paris Metro? It always stinks.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

In fact, the Paris metro does not always stink. But, more pertinently: people are not allowed to pee on the Paris metro. Responses to this kind of stupid question should begin by countering the false assumption, as does this one:

People are not allowed to pee in the Paris Metro. If you see someone peeing there, it is either someone who is living there because they are homeless, or (MUCH less commonly), someone who is very drunk.

This blog post will tell you a bit about the smells of Paris, but before you go read it, think about this: people do not pee in random places in metro stations. Homeless people are careful to pee in the gutters that run along the bottom of the walls to keep water from building up on the “quais” (I don’t know the English word—the platform, maybe?) during wet weather. If you see someone peeing in the stairs or someplace stupid like that, they’re drunk, not homeless.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

…and with that rant off my chest, it’s time to step outside with a cup of coffee to enjoy a fine American tobacco product and watch the lizards frolic, ’cause Louisiana. But, first: English notes!

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English notes

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me.

cash cow: something that produces a lot of income very reliably.

to make a mint: to make a lot of money. A mint is a place where money is (physically) produced. Where bills are printed, where coins are struck. (Now there’s an obscure lexical item for ya!) The expression has some weird behaviors related to the verb to make, but before we get to them, let’s see its basic use:

  • Hey now, that film was game-changing. Do you realise how many genuinely terrible found footage films we would probably have been denied if Blair Witch hadn’t come out of nowhere and made a mint? Source: this tweet
  • My sister, a former rare book dealer, made a MINT selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont. They’d last 6-18 months… Source: this tweet
  • when this dude retires, he’s gonna make a mint doing sports talk in pittsburgh. i don’t mean that as a compliment. Source: this tweet.

In the last two examples, we see that you can specify what was done to make the money: selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont, doing sports talk in Pittsburgh.

There is another way to specify what caused that money to be made. In this case, you will use something that is a noun (or close to one), introduced by off of, or just off:

  • My paternal grandfather made a lot of money off of attractive young women. (True–family scandal.)
  • I made no money at all off of the sale of my first house. (Sadly, also true.)
  • You can’t make money off dreams. (Not true.)

So, now we go back to the first sentence of this blog post: To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. Clear now?

___________________________

The notions of cash cows and of making money off of things reminds me of this vignette from Jacque Prévert’s epic poem Encore une fois sur le fleuve and its “gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs”:

Et la Seine continue son chemin

et passe sous le pont Saint-Michel

d’où l’on peut voir de loin

l’archange et le démon et le bassin

avec qui passent devant eux

une vieille faiseuse d’anges un boy-scout malheureux

et un triste et gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs
Et celui-là s’avance d’un pas lent vers la Seine en regardant les tours de Notre-Dame
Et cependant

ni l’église ni le fleuve ne l’intéressent mais seulement la vieille boîte d’un bouquiniste
Et il s’arrête figé et fasciné devant l’image d’une petite fille couverte de papier glacé

Elle est en tablier noir et son tablier est relevé une religieuse aux yeux cernés la fouette

Et la cornette de la sœur est aussi blanche que les dessous de la fillette
Mais comme le bouquiniste regarde le vieux monsieur congestionné celui-ci gêné détourne les yeux et laissant là le pauvre livre obscène

jette un coup d’oeil innocent détaché

vers l’autre rive de la Seine

The photo of Jacques Prévert at the top of this post is from 1977, and is one of the last. It is copyrighted by Agence France Presse. I found it here: https://www.lepoint.fr/culture/ecouter-prevert-et-mourir-08-03-2013-1637502_3.php

Pictures worth a thousand definitions

Google Images is not the *best* thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes.

Google Images is not the best thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes. Case in point: today I wanted to know what joufflu means in French. I might forget the definition I read, but I won’t soon forget the pictures that Google Images gave me when I searched for it:

Le Président, joufflu aux pommettes rosées, l’air austère, me regarde dans les yeux sans laisser paraître aucun sentiment.

Henri Charrière, Papillon

I wanted to check my guess that a cuistot is closer to a short-order cook than to a chef–Google Images pretty much confirmed it:

Picture source: unevieencuisine.com/actualites/cuisinier-vs-cuistot.html

You’re confused because WordReference says that a flingue is a gun, but the Frenchies around you keep using it to refer to pistols? Google Images will straighten you out–turns out WordReference doesn’t quite have it right this time:

Is, as they say, a picture worth a thousand words? As a scientist, I’m always skeptical of exact numbers, but it’s certainly worth a lot of definitions…



English notes

Joufflu is a noun–there’s also a feminine form, joufflue. According to my Quillet (a damn nice dictionary, by the way), it’s a person qui a les joues pleines. As far as I know, there is no equivalent noun in English. We would use the adjective chubby-cheeked if we didn’t mean anything bad by it, and jowly, from the noun jowl, if we did.

Now, I know what you’re about to ask: does the noun jowl come from joue (French for “cheek”)? I mean, we stole, like, 80% of our vocabulary from French (the percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the contents of a good dictionary or the (relatively) common vocabulary of everyday life–we rarely escape from Zipf’s Law), so why not this word, looking as much like joue as it does?

Merriam-Webster says otherwise. It’s helpful here to know that the noun jowl has multiple, but related, meanings. Here’s the most common one:

usually slack flesh (such as a dewlap, wattle, or the pendulous part of a double chin) associated with the cheeks, lower jaw, or throat

Merriam-Webster entry 1

Note that it includes the cheeks–that’s why it comes to mind for me in this context–but, other parts, too. Most pertinent to the current question: the throat. For this specific meaning, Merriam-Webster postulates the following etymology:

alteration of Middle English cholle, probably from Old English ceole throat

Merriam-Webster, again

Where it gets surprising to me is that the second entry has a different etymology for a related, but different, sense. Here’s entry 2 for jowl:

1a: CHEEK sense 1

b: the cheek meat of a hog

2a: JAW especiallyMANDIBLE

b: one of the lateral halves of the mandible

more Merriam-Webster

…and its etymology as per Merriam-Webster:

alteration of Middle English chavel, from Old English ceafl; akin to Middle High German kivel jaw, Avestan zafar- mouth

…and yet again, Merriam-Webster

Two distinct etymologies for two pretty clearly related senses of the same word? Well: we are occasionally visited here by an actual lexicologist, and a good one (with whom I had the pleasure of having a nice cup of coffee a couple weeks ago, but that’s another story). See the comments below for his response (I hope)!

Who comes to mind for me when I think of the word “jowly:” Richard Nixon. He used to be thought of as the worst American president EVER–his much-later successor Trump has certainly restored Nixon’s reputation… Picture source: https://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/the-worst-presidents/articles/2014/12/17/worst-presidents-richard-nixon-1969-1974

…and one more thing, and I’ll shut up. Here’s a recording of Henri Charrière, author of the quote that I gave you above for the word joufflu. Charming Ardèche accent (I think it’s ardèchois–Phil d’Ange?):